John T O'Farrell's Commentary On The Digital Space and Online Marketing

Beware: Desktop Horizontal Swipe/Scroll or How Simple User Testing Disproved “Everybody Will Get That”

Word of advice to digital marketers and merchandisers, if you’re thinking of using a horizontal swipe/scroll mechanism on a desktop as a tool to display information or product, or want to make sure your target audience can readily access this information with a swipe/scroll, be cautious and make sure at least some simple user testing is done beforehand.  (n.b. This is not to be confused with horizontal browser scroll bars…a mortal sin)

Jacob Nielsen’s Alertbox recently featured an article by Katie Sherwin titled Beware Horizontal Scrolling and Mimicking Swipe on Desktop She outlines the appeal of adding vertical swipe/scrolling and goes on to list the top risks associated with it as well as recommendations to mitigate them.

My first encounter with use of a desktop horizontal swipe type scroll came a few years ago while working on a website for a well-known Fortune 100 company. The goal of the site was to deliver important messaging to the target audience but do it in way that projected the company as technically cutting edge and forward thinking. My team came up with a number beautiful, elegant, design treatments.  One of the treatments relied on a desktop horizontal scroll/swipe feature as the primary mechanism to display information tied to the site’s primary objective.

Being hesitant to present an option with a potential usability issue placed me at logger heads with my designers. A deal was struck that we would present this option as very forward thinking and add a caveat that we would have do a good deal of testing to ensure the site’s primary objective could be easily achieved by the target audience.  With that and the belief that the client would choose one of the other very strong options, we moved forward.

Much to my chagrin, the client loved the “very forward thinking” design with the horizontal swipe/scroll, despite my caveats.  I knew we had some work ahead of us.

As suspected, the first rounds of design failed simple task based user testing…miserably.  Taking the findings we went back to the drawing board and produced some work that I was confident was going to pass testing. Fail!  But all was not lost.  We now had information learned over two rounds of testing!  Going into the third round I was 100% confident we would pass. I recall the words “no way this can fail” and other like statements coming out of my mouth. After the third failure I began to get nervous.  Time was growing short. We had a fixed deadline without the option of delaying it. 

Long story short, we got it right on the fifth round of testing.  What did we do?  We tested and applied learnings from each round to the next until we got it right.  The biggest thing we did was add in permanent visual affordance that telegraphed to the user content was available with a horizontally swipe/scroll.  For this round, to cover our bases we added in more traditional navigation schema to supplement our “very forward thinking” design. Between the two, we passed testing and preserved the design.

The moral of the story, even when you are “100% confident” that “everyone will get this” do some simple user testing to prove it.

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